Yeah! Entertainment! Vague, generic, non-specific entertainment! That's what we buy a games console for. Despite the existence of the internet, cinema, the theatre, TV, sport and all kinds of other things happening, paid-for and for free, out in the real world, there just isn't enough entertainment available these days. The solution? Shift the emphasis of a games console away from games and onto everything else.
You know, a bit like showing TV or playing music in a cinema. Or cancelling a theatrical run in favour of using the stage as a dancefloor. I'm being highly facetious, of course, but according to its latest pre-E3 statement, Microsoft may or may not be taking a similar direction rather aggressively in the immediate future. Click on and I'll discuss the pros and cons. Could be great, could be MS chasing the tail of the wrong dead horse.*
Microsoft's exact wording?? Why, it goes thusly:
"Put simply, Xbox = entertainment and is core to our entertainment strategy. Around the world, the Xbox connects more people to online content and communities through the largest screen in the house than any other device. And as the console has evolved, it’s stayed true to its core while adding more and more experiences. Today, there is no better gaming experience in the world. Immersive games, sports games, games where you are the controller, games where you talk to your friends, games where you talk to the console, games that get you into shape, that make you laugh, that let you take a picture and share it with friends. Games that extend to your Windows 7 PC and your Windows Phone 7…and, of course, other devices to come…"
There's also talk of a slow, barely-perceptible evolution of what the Xbox 360 is all about having occured over recent years, alongside the obvious references to Microsoft's content deals with ESPN, Netflix and Hulu, as well as a promise that at E3 we'll see that Microsoft is "continuing to deliver mind-blowing gaming experiences, and we are turning up the heat on a whole new era of home entertainment"
Sooooo... Happy about that? In principle, I have no problems with the idea. In fact it's a very good one. After all, home entertainment was always going to go this way, and Microsoft has always been at the forefront of the movement for integrated home media delivery. It's even arguable that the original Xbox was just a way of getting the company's foot in the door of the games industry so that it could start fully realising its holistic entertainment hub plans this generation, when the technology was more ready for it.
The problem though, lies with context. Last E3 was frankly dismal for 360-only hardcore gamers. The vacuous waggle of Kinect dominated everything, and whatever MS is claiming in regards to "hardcore Kinect" games coming to this year's show, few in the gaming community or media are convinced that the device can ever really deliver "proper" games. With only Gears of War 3 openly in the pipeline for serious gamers (unless Crytek's barely-mentioned-last-year Codename: Kingdoms comes to amazing fruition), it's understandable that core 360-owners might currently feel a lot like Nintendo fans did back in 2007.
And Nintendo spent a long time promising not to forget the core, while showing absolutely no evidence that that was true.
Above: NEVER AGAIN!
So Microsoft needs to tread very carefully at this year's E3 press conference. It needs to learn from Nintendo's mistakes - mistakes that Nintendo itself has arguably learned from, if its conference last year and the purported hardcore specs of Project Cafe are anything to go by. It needs to realise that branching out for a more general audience is fine. Healthy, even. But to do so in a way which overlooks or even excludes its core audience is a massive error.
Kinect hardware has sold a shedload. That's not in dispute. And it's understandable that MS would be as excited by those casual numbers as Nintendo was by its Wii sales, and push its resources all the way in that direction. Whether Kinect has gained any real cultural significance, or whether it will drive third-party software sales... Well, that certainly is in dipute, as I explored here. And as for the loyalty of that casual, non-gaming market, at a time when Nintendo has already milked it dry, and is set to consolidate the 3DS and launch a new machine? Personally I'd have several baskets ready for the storing of my eggs.
Branch out, Microsoft, by all means. I'll welcome it. But branching out means expanding, not redirecting. And it's going to take more than a single Gears of War game to convince the rabid internet hordes that you're doing things the right way.